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Marvin Miller and free agency: Good for baseball

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer
Marvin Miller's legacy of free agency is something for which baseball fans should be grateful. (Getty Images)

On the occasion of Marvin Miller's passing, some will no doubt use the occasion to lament what Miller helped bring to baseball: free agency.

Time was when a player was bound to his club either for the entirety of his professional life or until his employer decided to cut him loose or dispatch him to another city. Then along came Miller, who made a true union out of what was formerly nothing more than a valet to the whims of ownership. Besieged first by Curt Flood and then later by Miller's long-coveted "test cases" in Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, baseball's foundation was finally, in 1976, recast in the most unthinkable of ways.

After arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled for Miller and the players, the infamous reserve clause didn't vanish into the ether; in fact, a glance at the most recent collective-bargaining agreement reveals that's still very much with us. These days, it reads:

A. Reservation Rights of Clubs

Subject to the rights of Players as set forth in this Agreement, each Club may have title to and reserve up to 40 Player contracts. A Club shall retain title to a contract and reservation rights until one of the following occurs:

(1) The Player becomes a free agent, as set forth in this Agreement;

(2) The Player becomes a free agent as a result of

(a) termination of the contract by the Club pursuant to paragraph 7(b) thereof,

(b) termination of the contract by the Player pursuant to paragraph 7(a) thereof,

(c) failure by the Office of the Commissioner to convey to the Player, by Central Tender Letter submitted to the Association, the Club's tender of a new contract within the time period specified in paragraph 10(a) of the contract (see Attachment 9), or

(d) failure by the Club to exercise its right to renew the contract within the time period specified in paragraph 10(a) thereof; or

(3) The contract is assigned outright by the Club.

The rub -- that hard-won rub of Miller's -- occurs a few paragraphs later:

B. Free Agency

(1) Eligibility

Following the completion of the term of his Uniform Player's Contract, any Player with 6 or more years of Major League service who has not executed a contract for the next succeeding season shall become a free agent, subject to and in accordance with the provisions of this Section B.

On a human level, these were necessary and woefully belated changes. It undermines basic notions of justice and autonomy to give a worker such limited control of his working life. So why all the populist resentment? It's mostly the bizarre notion that because ballplayers are ballplayers and not farmhands or shoe salesmen or actuaries or stevedores or teachers or whatever they're somehow not entitled to those elemental liberties. This is, of course, rank nonsense.

There's also the equally misguided notion that the era of free agency has somehow compromised baseball's competitive integrity, that those old tethers kept the game from being dominated by the well-heeled. It simply isn't the case.

For instance, take a look at this graph put together by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, which tracks the standard deviation of the difference between baseball's best and worst winning percentages (i.e., the smaller the figure, the more parity there is) ...

As you can see, competitive balance, as defined this way, has improved steadily over time, including post-free agency. The slight bump seen during the late 1990s/early 2000s likely has more to do with disparities among local-television revenues (something that's been addressed in recent years by increased sharing of those revenues), if it's not just random noise.

Review the existing literature if you like (for a nice synopsis, see Page 7 of this PDF). According to any measure and leavened by any variables you can think of, free agency has, at worst, been a neutral force when it comes to parity in Major League Baseball. If, as former A's owner Charlie Finley had suggested, every player became a free agent after each season, then perhaps those with the deepest coffers would indeed rule baseball. But those six years of service time noted above ensure that a team gets a return on its developmental investment in a player, provided the team chooses to realize that return. In many cases, the player's best seasons are already behind him by the time he qualifies for unfettered free agency. The consequence of free agency has been drastically increased player salaries, but free agency demonstrably has not led to a league dominated by high-revenue clubs.

And what of those increased player salaries? They haven't affected you unless you are a team owner. Player salaries don't affect ticket prices (ticket prices are a function of supply and demand), regardless of what the occasional dishonest team executive tells the credulous local columnist. Why those who write the checks have come to value talent to such seeming extremes is another discussion entirely, but, at a basic level, that's not our problem. Mostly, to lament free agency in 2012 and knowing what we know requires not only ignorance but willful ignorance.

Once you consider that salary escalation has made baseball such an attractive pursuit to some of the best athletes in the world, it's clear that what Miller and the players fought for has been an unalloyed good for the game. It's made the game on the field more exacting, more ruthless in its demands and, ergo, more of a pleasure to watch. And that's to say nothing of the inherent fairness of the system, at least when compared to the pre-1976 baseball world.

All across Twitter and other platforms, players have been effusive in their praise of Marvin Miller and his life's work. But those of us who enjoy the game from the stands and the bar stools and the sofas should also raise a toast to the man who helped make baseball a better game.

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